USAID Administrator Samantha Power on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

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Friday, June 11, 2021

June 10, 2021

Link to video can be found here.

MR. COLBERT: Welcome back, everybody. Joining me now is the Pulitzer Prize winning author, who served as UN Ambassador for four years, and now works as the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development.  Please welcome to A Late Show, Administrator Samantha Power.  Hello Samantha Power.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Hello, Stephen. Nice to see you. 

MR. COLBERT: Nice to see you, too. Now, I called you Administrator. But you get to be called Ambassador too because once an Ambassador always an Ambassador, right?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Yes, these are high class problems. Exciting.

MR. COLBERT:  Which do you like more, do you like Administrator or Ambassador? And there's a right answer, obviously?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER:  There is a right answer, I like Administrator, thank you. 

MR. COLBERT: Okay, good, good. Now, congrats on the new gig at USAID. For the people out there who may not be familiar with the United States Agency for International Development, what does it do? Well, what's the job?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Yeah, it’s at home here in America, one of our better kept secrets. This is an agency that the taxpayers fund. We have missions in 80 countries, offices with people and staff, about 10,000 people around the world, and programs in about 100 countries, and we do everything from support the education of girls to vaccinating young people, and preventing outbreaks of disease. 

We fight climate change, both by helping countries lower their emissions, which is so critical, but also in helping poorer countries adapt, because we know that extreme weather events are going to be with us into the future and they're taking a terrible toll on people. When an emergency strikes, like an earthquake or recently a volcano, we provide support to people who are on the ground, responding, and often it's our planes that are landing first bringing humanitarian relief, while others are waiting to see how things unfold. 

MR. COLBERT: So, it's a really important agency. Is it underneath anything else or is it its own entity?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: It's an independent agency at the disposal of the President, but we're obviously always working with the Secretary of State and the Defense Department and others to make sure that we're in lockstep in pursuing America's foreign policy goals.

MR. COLBERT: Is this a big part of what is sometimes called America's soft power?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I think it is the soft power arsenal. And when people abroad hear USAID, they think, oh yeah they funded that program that helped my daughter get access to school books, or they helped provide that solar system that helped bring energy to my neighborhood because we didn't have electricity, or they helped me get electricity for that matter. So it's really well known that this is the generosity of the American people playing out around the world, and it is a great source of influence for us because people are genuinely grateful. 

MR. COLBERT: Well, you mentioned vaccines in the first part of your answer there, and of course, today, the big news is that President Biden announced the U.S. will donate 500 million, half a billion vaccines globally. Is USAID going to be involved in that in any way?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Absolutely, and this is major. I think, Vice President Biden back in the Obama years referred to something as a B-F-D this is a B-F-D.  500 million is more doses than have been administered in South America, Africa, and European Union combined. These are doses that are going to go to countries that haven't been able to afford to do these contracts with the pharmaceutical companies, as we have been fortunate enough to do. Our fate is connected to the fate of people who are receiving these vaccines.  It's in all of our interests to bring this pandemic to a close much sooner, because of the risk of variants, and because of the economic toll that is taken, which of course has a knock on, negative effect on our economy and our employment rate even. 

So, it's in our interest, but it is so the right thing to do and what you'll see in the coming days is us using this contribution by the United States to get other countries to do more, and that, that is American catalytic leadership at its best. We make a big announcement like this 500 million doses, which, are again, just so urgently needed in so many parts of the world. Africa, only 2% of Africans have been vaccinated compared to more than half of our population here in the United States. So we make this announcement, but then we leverage it to get our partners to contribute financially, or themselves to donate surplus doses, vaccines as well so we start to get those numbers up way beyond 500 million very soon. 

MR. COLBERT: On Monday, Vice President Harris was in Guatemala, and she said to the Guatemalans, “do not come to the US to seek asylum,” but also pledged to help fix the larger problems in the region that tend to drive people out of their country and toward our border. Is that also the sort of thing that USAID is involved in?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I think all of us in the Biden Administration are very committed to ensuring that people have their asylum claims heard, and so I do want to stress that. I know that Vice President Harris would say that. Yes, USAID is the primary implementer of our root causes strategy. What would make a mom entrust their child to a coyote? Imagine the level of desperation that that mother is experiencing. Our job as USAID, again, in partnership with communities and actors on the ground, is to try to ensure that no mother has to make that choice. 

MR. COLBERT: In the past, has that been useful, though, because a lot of criticism of things like overseas aid, people say like “well we're throwing good money after bad.” Has there been success in the past and slowing down that kind of migration? 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I will say that it didn't help that in the last administration, all assistance to the region was cut off, so many of our programs which were starting to show reductions in crime and in homicides in particular communities, those programs were suspended. But I think, look, it's a very fair question. One of the things that USAID has gotten better at over time, and I'm even really impressed now coming back into the government to see how much more sophisticated it is, is doing these evaluations and actually studying the data and ascertaining what works. Sometimes what works is a gender-based violence program to give a woman who's survived sexual violence the care that she needs in her own community. And so she doesn't have to flee in order to try to find it elsewhere. 

Sometimes it's about reaching at-risk youth who might go into a gang, if they don't have a jobs program to turn to or any vocational skills. So there's no silver bullets, for sure. But part of what we need to do, as well as provide lawful pathways, so that people can actually apply for seasonal work here in this country, and then be able to go back home because, again, the one thing I can say from all my travels around the world is, it's very rare that you meet somebody who wants to leave home, you know where that is their first choice. More often than not their first choice is to have opportunity and hope in their own community. 

MR. COLBERT: You were on the last time to talk about your book The Education of an Idealist. But I also know that you're in some ways a pragmatist, you believe in reaching across the aisle if it'll achieve the goals that you're trying to achieve. Is pragmatism valued in Washington these days, from your experience?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Look, take the reaction to this vaccine announcement. I think the pandemic has taught some of us a deep lesson about how connected we are to people elsewhere. It might have been seen, for example, before the pandemic as idealism, to give away 500 million doses that the American taxpayer helps pay for. I think now there's a recognition that is pragmatism, right, with the risk of variants with the cost to our economy of other economies being shut down. So, in an interconnected world, where the line between idealism and pragmatism lie, I think is harder to discern. It is really in our interest, and in accordance with the kind of compassion that I think all of us feel proud when we see an extended, internationally.

MR. COLBERT: Well, Sam, it is good to see you again. Thanks for being here. 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Lovely to see you.

MR. COLBERT: USAID Administrator Samantha Power, everybody. We'll be right back with a performance by Maroon Five.

Last updated: November 10, 2022

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